Lists Reyah Martin


Lists -

Reyah Martin


First thing: Mama was not my mother.  Only what I called her.

Second: We never talked of it.  But other people did.

Third: She needed lists like this.

Not for important things, like my birthday, but other things like:

The nearest neighbours are Eddie and Agnes.  Agnes is sweet.  Eddie is not.

Your sister lives across the country now.  You can’t go knocking across the street.

The sugar is in the back cupboard.  Get the stool to reach it.  Please.

I started making them last year.  Back when Mama first lost her mind.  An accident, she said.  She’d put it somewhere safe – propped up on the mantelpiece or tucked under the crucifix – then she forgot and fretted and cried, and sometimes finding it again took all afternoon.  Once she walked out looking for it, until someone found her in her nightdress, at the fountain in the town square, staring at rich men’s shining cars with two cream cakes smashed over her hands.  They helped her back.  She buckled in the road.  She fussed something terrible, but I wasn’t frightened.  Not at first.  She found her mind when she came home.  Took strong coffee and went straight to bed.  I wanted to ask her how she did it, but there wasn’t time enough.  Besides, she kissed me goodnight.  That was more important.

In the morning though, she couldn’t think of her own name.  People started wondering, calling for the doctor, but she wouldn’t see him.  No money for doctors, she said.  And she wouldn’t see the reverend either.  Mama didn’t believe in prayers, not unless it was Sunday.  And even on Sundays she had no patience for them.  ‘Nothing will save me,’ so she said, ‘whenever my time comes.’

She winked and I wondered why she was laughing.

Not long after, she started making cake.

She never used to.  Said it was work for women with husbands, and there was never an occasion worth slaving for.  But when she came home it was like the city drove her mad.  She’d eat nothing but sponge, and let her coffee go cold.  At first it wasn’t madness.  People were kind and brought her what they had lying around.  They each remembered when she’d brought their babies into the world.  Cured their husbands of their aches.  Cast a spell for the health of their minds.  Always women, come to think of it.  Never saw men smiling at the door.  One searing hot day she leant over, like she was trying to get out of bed.  She screamed them from the house.  Didn’t know a single one.

Well again, she was sorry.

She made a point of it.  She wanted them to see.

Monday through Friday she went crazy baking, and the house smelled of sugared lemons.  She cleaned the floors and washed the curtains and put a banner in the window saying WELCOME but she never knew who we’re welcoming.  She had me pin it up anyway, standing on a three-legged stool.  Standing back to judge if it’s straight.  People walked past and ogled it.  She laughed.  Waved.  Glazed-over eyes, they crossed the street.

‘People like that, I don’t trust them.’ She stood out on the front steps.  ‘They don’t see the good in anyone.  You hear me?’  I had to careful answering, she was expecting me to say the right thing, but I was thinking up the safest.  Holding my breath on the porch. 

‘Yes Mama, I do.’

She smiled.  ‘Good girl.’

Then she forgot what I said.

She flounced over to check her cakes.  She sent me to the next house for a little butter.  I asked but they were all out.  The women used it up frying potatoes.  Nobody gave.  Mama clicked her teeth, leaned over the stove and grumbled, ‘Lies, I’m telling you.  They’ll be hiding it.’

‘I don’t think so-’

‘Straight up lies.  You take my word.’  She put her hands on her hips, lips pressed together.  Glaring down at me.  I was searching for something to say, but her face talked for itself.  Her eyes weren’t finished, but it was best waiting for them to keep out of trouble.  She dusted down her hands.  Rubbed them on her apron.  Flour spun from her.  ‘Don’t you ever get that way.  You give what you got to whoever’s asking.  Then someday when you need something, you’re sure to get it back.’  Frown-rumpled she checked her watch, trailing flour-plumes.  ‘Now, go out and try again.  This time…ask them nice.’

Sundays, people made huge dinners.  They ate like animals, praising the Lord on High.  Used everything up, stuffing themselves in every window.  The women cooked and cooked and the children crammed their mouths, feasting better than Christ in Heaven. Mama said it was lucky I’d got no daddy.  She wagged her finger at me the second we were home from the sermon.

‘You’re very lucky.  Take it from me.  Just look at them, off home only to make pigs of themselves.  And on a Sunday too.’  There were kids stumbling past, empty-stomached and griping.  Mama shouted on account of her bad ear, so loud she could bring the roof down.  She sang the same way, thunderous over everyone else.  People shook their heads at her.  Rolled their eyes and grumbled.  Not that Mama cared.  She didn’t even care for prayers.  ‘The Lord’s day, no less, and here they are.  Not even a little butter to spare.’

Days like that, she wasn’t sorry at all.

I shuffled my feet.  ‘You want me to try further on?’  Mama opened the oven, choked on  a smoke-cloud.  She back-stepped, cake-heat looming in her face.  I gave it a second.

‘Further on?’  She’d lost her mind again.  Too deep in a memory.. 

I press her.  ‘For the butter, Mama?  You still need it?’ 

Mama nodded.  She put a hand to her forehead, brow furrowed.  ‘Go far as you can.  And remember.  Ask them nice.’

I ran to the very end of the road, right up to the church.  Reverend Hart lived in the tiny house beside it.  He was the first to come when Mama was sick, took her gentle away from the rich men’s cars.  Made sure the city wouldn’t crush her.  There were nights Mama talked about him in her sleep, more sorry than usual, for his wife was dead and his daughter young with no mother.  ‘She’s about your age,’ Mama said, remembering more than she thought.  For a second I thought she meant the mother.  The dead one.  But I put her thoughts together.

‘His daughter?  Yes, Mama.  We go to school together.’

‘Of course you do.  I knew that.’

‘I know you do.’

The Reverend found another wife.  Someone pretty to answer the door and do his cooking when he’s done each week with God.  His daughter shined up her shoes every morning before school.  She was in the window, bobbing up like a pretty painted doll. Somebody fed her good.  Crumbs trailing down her dress.  Tell-tale butter melting in the corners of her mouth.  I hated her in that moment.  Before I even asked.

I said my good evenings, like decent people did.  Lizzie Hart shoved through, new-lipstick-slick.  The lemon smell hit her, like the smell in the back-streets.  Made her nose wrinkle.  She stood back, frowning.

‘Your Mama making cake again?’

I nodded.  Pinned my eye on the ground.  There was a ladybug skittering in the yellow grass.   

‘Who for?’  She tried to get me looking up, prodding the grass with the point of her shoe.  The ladybug wriggled under the porch-step.  She creaked forward in her shiny shoes.  There was a balloon in my mouth where I wanted to scream, praying the bug got safe underground.  She jammed her finger in my shoulder.  ‘I said, who for?’


‘Right.  Nobody.’  She turned nasty.  Voice shivery-soft.  ‘You’d better be careful.  All I’m saying.’

‘Careful?  Careful of what?’  The grass was dry and cracking.  ‘I was only asking.  Listen, it don’t matter.  I’ll go someplace else.’  I turned.  She stopped me.  Eyes right up against mine.

‘You know she’s not your real Mama.  Right?’

‘’Course I do.  I’m not stupid.’

Only stupid enough to pray for a ladybug.

‘You know she’s going mad, then?’

‘No.  She…it’s not like that.  Look.  You got any butter or not?’

Forgetting to ask nice.  Peering under the porch-step.

‘No.  We used it all up.  Not that you need it anyhow.’  She wiped her mouth on her sleeve.  ‘Making cake for nobody.’

When the door closed I cried awhile.  Not that I could figure why.  When Mama saw she fussed about it.  I felt better knowing.  Felt important like a birthday.  But I couldn’t quite say that I’d be crying for her, so I explained about the ladybug.  She listened at first.  Bent forward, wide-eyed.  But even as I told her she was coming undone.  I was losing her.  Losing her fast.  And there was no safe place – neither to keep her nor to hide.

(c) 2021 Reyah Martin